The backyard of the Perry Mansion Cultural Center. Credit: courtesy Sam Smith

When Sam Smith opened the Perry Mansion Cultural Center in 2010, his
preeminent goal was to reclaim and reshape the narrative of black life in
America. “You build bridges by having the ability to control your image and
your story, and [black people] don’t get to do that,” Smith says. And with
each exhibit, he’s been able to tell this story piece by piece, but its
culmination will come in a few years when he’s completed building a slave
ship in the basement for an exhibit that will be called “The Slave
Experience.”

The Queen Anne-style house that is the Perry Mansion Cultural Center is
located at 7042 S. Perry, in Englewood. When Smith first purchased the
home, it was a dilapidated drug hub in a crime-ridden neighborhood. Smith,
who was born in Mississippi but raised in Chicago, was confident that the
neighborhood had more to offer than drugs, delinquency, and death. The
Perry Mansion Cultural Center was his way of proving and showcasing that.

“It’s been very good for this block,” Smith says. “When I first bought this
place there were heroin addicts nodding off in the middle of the street,
the block was full of young people selling drugs and hanging out. You don’t
get any of that now, and it’s because they have respect for the space.”

Since its inception, the cultural center has hosted museumlike art
exhibits, open-mike nights, after-school programs, and more. And although
it may be coincidental, Englewood has seen a decrease in crime since the
Perry Mansion Cultural Center opened its doors.

Smith says that community members have told him how much they love the
cultural center and what it has done for the neighborhood. He says that
he’s built relationships with some of the young people who were initially
causing trouble when he first moved in. “I’ve had conversations with them
about the importance of the space,” he says. “I’ve even sent three of the
young people who used to hang out on this block to Job Corps.”

It’s been two years since the cultural center’s last exhibit, titled
“Tortured Souls.” That exhibit focused on the transatlantic slave trade and
introduced the model of the ship that will be built for “The Slave
Experience.” The ship will be made of wood and will encompass the entire
2,200-square-foot basement. There will be wax figures of slaves lying on
the floor of the hold, and the basement itself will be vacuum sealed.

His intent is to give visitors “a real-life example of what it was like to
be transported on the ships,” Smith explains. “You will experience all the
sounds and the smells of what it would be like on the middle decks of the
ship. It won’t be a pleasant experience.”

Along with the ship, the rest of the house will be turned into a “Slave
Experience” exhibit. The attic will serve as a ballroom and documentary
screening room. The first and second floors will feature art from artists
across the globe, all inspired by the Middle Passage. There will be panel
discussions where the featured artists are given the opportunity to discuss
their work. Then experts will join them and provide the facts of what
transpired during the ordeal.

Smith is planning this exhibit himself, as he usually does, but since the
ship will be so large he will be getting assistance with construction.
After the exhibit, the ship will remain as a permanent fixture at the
Cultural Center.

Building this slave ship is something that Smith says he has been thinking
about for nine years now. By his estimate, “The Slave Experience” exhibit
will be a $1.2 million project. Fund-raising efforts for this particular
venture are in beginning stages and set to launch in September. Once the
money is raised, the ship will take two to three years to build.

In the meantime, Smith is currently working on a dual exhibit that’s set to
be completed by next year. One level will be an exhibit on the Flint water
crisis and other cities across the country that have even higher levels of
lead in their water. The other level will be an exhibit on the nation of
Mauritania, where, although slavery was abolished in 1981, 20 percent of
the population is still enslaved. (He is considering, though, changing the
Mauritania exhibit to one on black wealth instead.)

While it has been rewarding, running the cultural center alone has been
taxing for Smith, who is also a master carpenter and furniture maker. “I
have to work every day to make a living; I do this in my spare time. After
I work all day and I go to the gym, I come back here and I build either
early in the morning or very late at night,” he says. “Time is very
challenging and, of course, [lack of] resources are challenging.”

The cultural center is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit that operates
solely through donations, without any grant funding. Smith started a
GoFundMe about a year and a half ago to raise money for basic upkeep and
costs associated with upcoming exhibits, but it hasn’t been very
successful.

“It’s a constant battle,” Smith says of his work maintaining the Cultural
Center. “It’s such a great demand on me personally,” but “I’m not finished
with what my original goal was with this space.” While he does plan on
passing on the responsibility of operating the Perry Mansion Cultural
Center to a successor, Smith must first finish “The Slave Experience”
exhibit. His original goal was to “direct our story and tell our story from
our perspective. And that will be done when the slave-ship piece is
completed.”   v